We have a photo from atop the Ledge nearly 40 years ago tucked away among hundreds of family snapshots that we’ve taken over the years.
There were only three of us then – my wife Kathy, our newborn daughter Maureen and me, the designated photographer that day.
For some reason — probably for the sheer beauty of it and because it was naturally free for the taking— we chose to stop at that scenic vantage point overlooking Fond du Lac with Lake Winnebago in the distance that bright fall day in 1975.
I remember thinking that it would be a wonderful place to own a home and wondering why there were virtually no houses along the scenic stretch of land around us. Because we were newcomers, I remember asking co-workers and others if construction was restricted there.
No one seemed to know or really care. Most people, even those who had lived in the Fond du Lac area all their lives, gave little thought to what the Ledge might hold in terms of development, history, artifacts or scenic beauty.
For most, it was a place set aside for rock quarries, gravel pits, a few farms and final resting places at Rienzi or St. Charles or one of the scenic little churches on the high ground atop rocks, gravel and sand deposited by the last glacier to recede from here thousands of years ago.
A changing perspective
Oh, how the Ledge has changed in the past four decades in the eyes and estimation of those who know the value of an incomparable view, the fiscal possibilities of land development, the unbridled desire for houses and condos and subdivisions; and the utility of convenience stories, highways, byways and bypasses.
Now, the challenge has evolved dramatically from an era of acquiring land, subdividing it, blasting and carving residential foundations into Ledge rock, drilling wells and constructing homes and businesses to a shrinking time frame that calls for preserving and conserving for posterity pieces and parcels of the Ledge from overindulgence, excess and too much civilization at the expense of not enough wilderness.
Thankfully, there are people and organizations here in Fond du Lac and beyond who have a dream that includes an island network — a Niagara Archipelago if you will — of untouched, undefiled pieces of Ledge land, cliffs, rock faces, outcroppings, even park sites that harbor Indian trails (hundreds, if not thousands, of years old); effigy mounds; petroforms, petroglyphs and cairns; and artifacts left behind by visitors thousands of years ago who made pilgrimages here because the Ledge was perceived as spiritually significant.
Visible from satellites
The Ledge is indeed a significant geologic feature of North America, visible by satellite from outer space. The limestone ridge stretches 650 miles from Fond du Lac and Dodge counties northward through Calumet, Manitowoc, Brown, Kewaunee and Door counties, then mostly underwater in an arc across southeastern Canada’s Great Lakes border to Niagara Falls in New York, where the Niagara River flows over it.
“We’re trying to raise awareness, to grow wonderment for what we have right here on this Ledge,” said Mary Toriello, a former chairman of the Town of Empire and a current member of the Friends of the Ledge Coalition.
The grass-roots Coalition exists to preserve the Fond du Lac County portion of the Ledge, known more formally as the Niagara Escarpment, and to protect “its holdings of natural and cultural heritage (both historic and ancient),” according to the mission statement of the Friends of the Ledge Coalition.
Bill Casper, a member of the Friends Coalition and a lifelong resident and former town chairman of the Town of Taycheedah, worries that opportunities to preserve portions of the Ledge may be undone by the allure of dollars and control of property.
“I’ve lived here all my life between the rock and the water (the Ledge and Lake Winnebago) and I know how valuable this all is,” Casper said. “We need to save some of it just the way it’s always been.”
He and others are hopeful that the Fond du Lac County Board of Supervisors will take action to purchase and preserve a key segment of the Ledge east of Fisherman’s Road along Highway 151. Negotiations with the property owner are in process.
“I know Al (Fond du Lac County Executive Al Buechel) is in favor of it,” Casper said. “We’re hopeful. There’s 1,400 feet of Ledge there. That’s almost unheard of around here. There just isn’t that much left untouched anymore.”
Buechel is confident that funding in the county budget and the prospect of a Wisconsin Stewardship grant would make acquisition possible. The bottom-line issue is whether the property owner would be willing to sell to the county.
Buechel describes the Ledge property as “unique” and “pristine.”
“We need to preserve it if at all possible,” he said. “It may be our last chance to set aside this special feature of the Ledge in its present state for the people of tomorrow. We need to do it.”
Toriello and Casper envision the possibility of an interactive museum on the site where children and the public in general could view Ledge artifacts and learn in a hands-on way more about the geological and archeological history of the limestone ridge that attracted Archaic people and Woodland Indian visitors for thousands of years.
In the course of eight decades, Casper has assembled an impressive collection of Ledge artifacts from Archaic tribes (6,000 B.C. until 2,000 B.C.) and Woodland Indian tribes (1,000 years ago) and large petrified snails estimated by scientists at Weis Earth Science Museum in Menasha at 3.5 million years old. Other local residents have similar collections.“We have the passion to do this,” Toriello said. “But now we need to build an organization, create a website, raise the level of awareness and get some young people to share the passion. We have to get our act together.”
Ledge Coalition’s vision
Toriello and Casper are joined in their vision of a network of preserved sites, trails and educational facilities by fellow members of the Ledge Coalition, including Joan and John Brusoe, Glen Oechsner, Theresa Mayer, Dwight Weiser and Dr. Fuller McBride.
Several years ago, it was Dwight Weiser who revealed an impressive listing of Ledge sites, effigy mounds and stone formations (petroforms) assembled by nomadic tribes thousands of years ago, including a number of photos, in what he called his “little book” titled “Secrets of the Ledge.”
Weiser, a self-described “avocational archeologist,” resides in a historic home on the oxbow curve of Highway 45 in a direct sight line to the Ledge where he has hiked and explored for decades, and recorded the history and significance of the escarpment.
More than anyone, it was Weiser who knew firsthand that effigy mounds and petroform sites marked the Ledge on and near the Fuller McBride property and the Izaak Walton League grounds just south of Highway 23 and Mary Hill Park.
It was evident to Weiser that ancient Indian people had revered the McBride site as “sacred.”
Thanks to Weiser, his interaction with McBride and the support of local residents, the DNR and local officials , a proposal by the state Department of Transportation to build a 1,000-foot wide highway corridor up and over the Ledge through the 23-acre McBride property was discarded as unworkable.
For Fuller McBride, a retired obstetrician who had a significant impact on generations of local families, it was a consciousness-raising turning point in his life.
It turned out that the rock-strewn marginal land he purchased in the 1970’s was far more significant than anyone could have known.
His mission now is to preserve it for posterity. It could become yet another island in the archipelago of Ledge-connected sites that could become a collective historical and educational destination.
In a dedication of his property to the concepts of preservation and conservation in June of 2011, McBride noted, “Exploitation for the sake of short-term profit is a high price to pay to lose forever treasures that are irreplaceable.
In a letter to local leaders in May of 2008, McBride wrote: “As the current custodian for a portion of this spectacular area, I am duty-bound to fight for its preservation.”
He continued: “Furnishing the involved parties with comprehensive and persuasive information is how I see my job. It is a big responsibility and I fear for not doing it adequately.”
More than six years later, he remains committed to the ideal. He wants his family members to carry on what he’s started when he’s no longer here.
Management plan needed
He envisions great value in a broad-based, long-range management plan to prevent over-development of the Ledge and Ledge-related sites.
He continues to speak up when he sees threats to the Ledge and Ledge-connected areas. He decried a plan by the Department of Transportation to remove century-old trees along Highway 45 between Lake de Neveu and the Ledge as part of a repaving project between Eden and Fond du Lac.
Opposition by local residents resulted in a DOT decision to save as many of the stately trees as possible.
McBride and others favor a Heritage Road designation for the section of highway in question, noting that legend has it that woolly mammoths compacted the trail along the Ledge that eventually became Highway 45 and that Archaic people hunted mammoths here to feed their families.
It seems the Ledge and its surroundings have served as a place of sustenance for spiritual and physical nourishment for eons.
The same principles that inspired our ancestors and the first white settlers to build churches on the highest, most scenic points available to them must be similar to the thoughts and feelings that prompted Archaic Americans and Woodland tribes to leave their mark on the Ledge and atop nearby hillsides where modern-day places of worship are located.
A common human bond extends across the ages, or so it seems.
Steve Victor, the owner along with Kay of Fedco Electronics in Fond du Lac, said, “We’re going ahead with a conservancy. My wife has always wanted to be part of a conservancy and she loves the Ledge.”
He and Kay envision at least two trails and a shelter or interactive museum of some sort on the 63-acre site along County Trunk WH, about a mile from Highway 151, on the way to St. Peter.
Plans call for the site to be named the Kay Victor Escarpment Conservancy.
Victor points out that there is nearly a half mile of exposed Ledge on the site, making it one of the prized sites in the Fond du Lac County segment for its educational and historical significance.
He pointed out that access points to the site already exist.
There is much more to be shared about this site in the year ahead. Details of the transaction are being finalized.
Several other potential sites exist in the island network of Ledge properties that could be preserved as park-like destination sites for the general public.
Locations once inhabited by two of Wisconsin’s first territorial governors lie on or along the Ledge. And there are caves along Breakneck Hill and the Ledge near Oakfield that high school students have frequented for decades. The list also includes Ledge Park in Dodge County, Kiekhaefer Park and the Scenic Overlook in the Town of Taycheedah.
Power of water
And there is a fascinating site on County Trunk Q once known as the tiny community of Marone, where a 35-foot waterwheel once revolved thanks to the cascade of water from a nearby stream.
The waterworks beneath the Ledge are a story unto themselves, according to Bill Casper and Dwight Weiser.
Weiser wrote in his prologue to “Secrets of the Ledge” that “thousands of springs emerge from both sides of the Ledge, creating numerous creeks, then rivers, then long waterpaths.”
The forces of water beneath the Ledge and beyond may explain the temporal and spiritual impact that beckoned the first human visitors to a place deemed sacred.
The bond transcends cultures and even the ages.
Michael Mentzer, now retired after a 40-year newspaper career, writes a monthly column for Scene.